Since its founding in 2005, Charlotte School of Law has become a big presence in the city. Nearly 1,500 students go there, making it the largest law school in the state, by far. And as of this fall, they're swarming around Uptown taking 10 floors of a high rise.
What's lesser known is that Charlotte School of Law is the state's only private, for-profit law school. And while its students pay about as much in tuition as those at highly-ranked Wake Forest, Charlotte graduates have a much tougher time finding jobs that pay enough to cover the debt.
The faculty and deans at Charlotte School of Law get a little starry-eyed when they talk about the kind of graduates they hope to produce – public-minded, ready-to-hit-the-ground-running, working on behalf of the little guy.
Isaac Sturgill could be their poster child. He's a 2012 graduate of Charlotte School of Law and currently a staff attorney in the housing division of Legal Aid of North Carolina in Charlotte.
Sturgill's shirt and tie are rumpled from a day in court helping people in low-income housing defend their rights. He passed the bar on his first try last summer and parlayed his enthusiasm and experience working with clients in the law school's extensive clinic program to beat out more seasoned candidates for this Legal Aid job.
"I came to work and they gave me my first three files and I asked if I could be excused to go get sworn in at the courthouse," recalls Sturgill. "I've been pretty busy ever since."
But while Isaac Sturgill is the kind of graduate Charlotte School of Law is aiming for, he's not the norm.
Employment data for the class of 2012 show just 45 of 234 graduates got work in the government or public sectors and most of them found only part-time, short-term positions. Nearly 10 percent of the class found no work at all. The rest split between working for a small law firm or a business – often in jobs that don't even require a law degree.
In fact, barely half of the Charlotte School of Law Class of 2012 got a job that required passing the bar. Graduates of North Carolina's other private law schools fared much better.
"The challenge is the legal profession always has biases to highly-ranked schools that have strong alumni bases," says John Lassiter, President of Carolina Legal Staffing.
Since Charlotte School of Law started graduating students a few years ago, it's only added to the glut of lawyers looking for work. And in a competitive market, a degree from a prestigious school will get you further than one from a new, unranked institution.
In time, Lassiter thinks Charlotte School of Law will develop the reputation and alumni base to give its diplomas more weight, locally. But at the moment, he's placing a lot of new grads in the legal equivalent of manual labor – temp jobs reviewing reams of documents and checking boxes: not the kind of work someone spends three hard years and thousands of dollars to get.
"But people get more pragmatic when they walk into a difficult economy and our marketplace here has 9.5 percent unemployment," says Lassiter.
"Pragmatic," because at $40,000 a year, Charlotte School of Law grads come out with a hefty burden of student loan debt. That's on par with tuition at 36th-ranked Wake Forest and not far from the $50,000 a year it costs to attend the state's most prestigious law school – Duke.
But not everyone can get into a top school and not everyone who goes to law school wants to be a lawyer, says Charlotte School of Law Dean Jay Conison.
"We provide an opportunity for students who might not have a chance to go to a school like Wake Forest or Duke because they may not have a high LSAT score or their GPA may not be as high, but they have the potential to be successful lawyers, to be successful business people, to be successful problem solvers," says Conison.
One critic calls that little more than "a beautiful story."
Elie Mystal is a pretty polarizing guy in legal circles and editor of a widely read blog called Above the Law. He says virtually all law schools - public, private, for-profit or not, charge way too much at a time when getting a law job is so tough.
Charlotte School of Law is one of three owned by a Florida company called InfiLaw, which is backed by the private equity fund Sterling Partners. The trend among such institutions is to tout themselves an alternative for the "underserved," as InfiLaw emphasized in an email response to questions. They typically accept students with much lower grades and LSAT scores . . . and they accept a lot more students than most schools.
Being big gives Charlotte School of Law the money to put toward special programs likes classes to help students pass the bar, says Dean Conison.
"We can deliver more - and better - services to serve these students," says Conison. "We can do everything we can to support them and do everything we can to maximize their success with law school, with the bar and their careers."
However, Conison concedes the school's latest bar results are "disappointing": only 58 percent passed, compared to the state average of 71 percent.
In auditoriums where Fall classes are underway, Charlotte School of Law students are hard at work. Many say they came here because it's the only law school in this part of the state. They rave about their professors and the training they get at the school's clinics.
Their professors – many of whom graduated from top law schools – rave about the freedom and support they get from the school.
"I never felt like I was not going to be able to gain employment by going to Charlotte School of Law," says third-year student Lasaundra Spencer, who has a job lined up when she graduates next spring. "As a matter of fact, it kind of fueled me to want to prove to people that I can come to this school, I can do the work, work hard, network, do the things that I need to do and still get a job."
But how much will that job pay? High-salary spots at top law firms are virtually out of the question unless you went to a prestigious school. National survey data show most recent law graduates earning $40,000 to $65,000 a year. Meanwhile, if they went to a private law school, they owe at least $125,000.
Above the Law's Mystal says people should think very seriously about why they want a law degree.
"If you're that dead set on going to law school and staying in North Carolina, you should go to the absolute cheapest law school you can get into, get your degree, pass the bar and then hustle for a job," says Mystal. "Unless you go to Duke, you're gonna have to hustle for a job and so, you might as well hustle for a job with as little debt as possible hanging over your head."
Which in North Carolina, means another unranked law school – this one public. The North Carolina Central University Class of 2012 had a harder time finding law jobs than their Charlotte peers, but having paid tuition of around $11,000 a year, they're also under a lot less financial pressure.